The average human spends 34 years of their life looking at screens. Just think about how insane that is. However, this is not to assume every one of these hours are wasted. With the digital revolution, a portion of such time is necessary, either as part of our jobs or for relaxation, like reading the news, scrolling through Instagram or watching TV. It’s a part of who we are now.

But that being said, more people are starting to realise the negative impact of an overexposure to screen time on our life, and how this can affect our health — both mentally and physically. Here we go through three ways in which you can improve your digital wellbeing, and ensure the time spent on devices adds to your life rather than takes away from it. But first,let’s look at the damage our virtual habits can cause in more detail.

What damage do virtual habits cause?

Acknowledging the reasons for why you need to limit your digital exposure will increase your motivation and make you more likely to stick to changing your habits. According to addiction expert Dr Anna Lembke, our smartphones are making us addicted to dopamine, which can have a grave effect on our life. Dopamine is an often misunderstood hormone. Many people associate it with pleasure, and because of this, believe it to be only positive. However, rather than giving us pleasure itself, dopamine motivates us to do things we think will bring it. As the brain’s major reward and pleasure neurotransmitter, it’s what drives us to seek pizza when we’re hungry and sex when we’re aroused. It is the anticipation of pleasure, rather than the actual thing.

As soon as the high is complete, we experience a comedown or dip. That’s because the brain operates via a self-regulating process called homeostasis — for every high, there is a low. In this comedown state, we crave that small burst every time we refresh that social media timeline, flick to the next story or swipe the next TikTok. With a tailored algorithm which is created to engage us, our brains have learned to expect stimulation with each swipe or refresh. Over time, brains become numb to dopamine and the motivational effect it can have on us. Therefore, when we need it to actually achieve something useful, like go to the gym, study for a test or grind in your side project, the hormone is less powerful, and we’re less likely to act on it. So how exactly can we change our virtual habits to counteract this?

1.    Set limits and boundaries

Setting digital boundaries will improve your wellbeing by helping you focus better, and can often improve your mental health over time. It is not about cutting out your digital use entirely, it’s about using these devices with greater intention.

The first way to try to limit your time is to limit how long you can view your phone screen for. For the disciplined among us, you can do this by setting personal parameters, such as “I will not watch TV just before I go to bed”, or “I won’t use my phone when I first wake up”.

To make things easier, Apple products now have a feature called Screen Time, which not only lets you know how much time you spend on your devices, but also allows you to alter how long you have access to certain applications, such as social media. You can set the app to be unusable at certain times too, such as after 9pm.

However, for people with stronger addictions, even this may not be enough of a barrier. A more overt tactic is needed, such as physical removal. Rather than keeping your phone in your pocket, try locking it in a drawer, leaving it on the other side of your home, or better yet, giving it to a friend. You’d be surprised how much the extra effort to get the phone in your hands will be as a deterrent. Is the grind really worth it to flick through social media for 10 seconds?

2.    Invest in smart tech

While it is important for us to absorb some blue light, as it helps regulate our circadian rhythm (or sleep pattern), too much blue light in the evening may disrupt that sleep pattern. When you open the curtain in the morning, your brain understands that it’s time to wake up by regulating appropriate hormones. But if we spend an entire evening staring at glaring screens and devices, such as phones, TVs or laptops, then the brain gets confused and inhibits the proper regulation of these hormones. Specifically, melatonin: the sleep hormone.

However, in this modern age, there is often no way around it. Whether you’re an avid gamer or a night owl working on essays, sometimes we have to use these devices at night. But that doesn’t remove the problem. So, to decrease the effect blue light has on you, you can get physical tech that solves this issue. This market has been pioneered by Ocushield, a new company which makes high quality anti-blue light protectors for laptops, monitors, smartphones and even glasses. These accessories are clinically proven to help actively shield blue light from your eyes, ensuring your exposure is limited to a safe level.

3.    Turn off your notifications

Notifications are connected to what we were saying before about dopamine. When we get a ping for a new push medication, our dopamine spikes in anticipation of what it is: has someone liked your post? Commented? Shared? Is there some amazing breaking news? But nine times out of ten, it’s not that interesting, and our dopamine spiked for nothing, sending us into a small lull, craving the next hit, the next notification. We discussed this before: it’s not ideal.

So why turn them off? A study from Carnegie Mellon University and Telefonica suggests that using your smartphone without notifications for a mere 24-hour period can noticeably improve your concentration, as well as reduce your stress levels. Another study from Florida State University found that any audible interruption from their phone negatively affected the results. Just hearing the ping of a notification was equally as distracting as actually taking a phone call, suggesting that “mobile phones can disrupt attention performance even if one does not interact with the device”.

The freedom removing push notifications gives us is incredible. Not everything requires an instant response, not much is truly important and urgent. Turning off digital notifications lets your phone work as a tool, putting you back in control.